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Investigating Collections: Science Meets Archaeology at the Library of Congress

This post is about research conducted by the author, in conjunction with Dr. Tana Villafana, Research Chemist and Spectroscopist, from the Preservation Research and Testing Division, and with Rosemary Ryan, Archaeological Research Fellow, at the Library of Congress. The research is part of a larger project to characterize and study all of the Mesoamerican jade and green stone objects that are part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library.

Several months ago the Library of Congress began an investigation of a small green stone bead that, along with may other jade and green stone objects, is part of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology of the Early Americas. This small bead, made from a low quality jade or other green stone, was donated to the Library by Jim May, a long time member of the Institute of Maya Studies, who received the bead many decades ago from the late Lister Witherspoon IV, a one time director of the Institute. The bead itself is fairly common, and typical of beads found in the archaeological record throughout Mesoamerica.

Green stone Bead with Cord Fragment donated to the Library of Congress by Jim May. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Green stone Bead with Cord Fragment donated to the Library of Congress by Jim May. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

What is unique about this particular bead, however, is what it contains. Still attached to the inside of the bead, after perhaps more than 2,000 years, was a small fragment of what appeared to be the cord or twine that was used to suspend it around the neck of an ancient Maya, Nahua, or Olmec noble. Organic material, like twine, is a rare find in Mesoamerican archaeology, where the damp and humid environments are not conducive to the survival of organic material such as cord, cloth, or wood.

Jade of any kind was revered by the Olmec, the Maya, and other Mesoamerican cultures and a significant variety of carved objects made from it and lesser green stones, like serpentine, have been found in archaeological context throughout Mexico and Central America. These include human figures, celts and axes, and personal ornaments like ear flares, necklaces, and beads, such as the one being investigated here.

Jade plague from the Guatemalan lowlands, late classic Maya period, 600-900 CE. The carving shows a Maya ruler and a toad, whose name is Ah Mal, or the dripper, referring to the poison that comes form the parotid gland on its back. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Jade plaque from the Guatemalan lowlands, late classic Maya period, 600-900 CE. The carving shows a Maya ruler and a toad, whose name is Ah Mal, or the dripper, referring to the poison that comes form the parotid gland on its back. Kislak Collection, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Because of the rarity of the cord fragments found in this particular bead, the author, in conjunction with scientists from the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress, decided to undertake an investigation using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) and Energy Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDX) to search for clues to the makeup of the cord fragments. These two techniques were selected because they can be performed on rare and fragile objects non-destructively, and in this case, without researchers disturbing the cord fragments or having to remove them from inside the bead.

Bead being inserted into the scanning electron microscope chamber in the Optical Properties Lab of the Library of Congress. Photo by Rosemary Ryan.

Bead being inserted into the scanning electron microscope chamber in the Optical Properties Lab of the Library of Congress. Photo by Rosemary Ryan.

The preliminary results of the investigations have found that the fiber within the bead seems to come from a species of Agave plant. Agave fibers like those shown in the SEM photograph below, have been used to make rope and twine in Southern Mexico for centuries, with most of the modern ropes and twines coming from the Agave sisalana species, which is sometimes referred to as “sisal hemp.” Looking closely at the SEM images of the cord fragment, magnified nearly two-thousand times, one can see both the cell walls of the plant and cross-sectional structure of the fibers themselves.

SEM Photography of the cross-section of fiber of the cord. Photography by Tana Villafana, PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

SEM Photography of the cross-section of fiber of the cord. Photography by Tana Villafana, PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

Agave plant cell walls shown on the surface of the cord. SEM photograph by Tana Villafana PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

Agave plant cell walls shown on the surface of the cord. SEM photograph by Tana Villafana PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

EDX is an analytical technique that allows for the determination of the elemental composition of anything on the surface of an object that is excited by a high-energy particle beam, like the electrons in a scanning electron microscope. Using the EDX technique, a map was made to determine the chemical elements on the surface of the bead and the cord fragments, to determine if it might reveal hints of the kinds of dirt and other detritus that can also be seen in the SEM images.

The map in the figure below is a scanning electron microscope image that is color-coded with the EDX results to show the chemical elements on the surface of the cord fragment. From the map, it is easy to see, in green, the carbon that makes up the plant fibers. The particles on the cord and bead seem to be lime (in the form of calcium oxide) and iron (most likely from red hemitate, a form of iron oxide). Both lime and iron are common in the kind of archaeological context one would expect this kind of bead to be found in.

EDX elemental map of a portion of the cord fragment. Analysis and photograph by Tana Villafane, PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

EDX elemental map of a portion of the cord fragment. Analysis and photograph by Tana Villafane, PRTD Division, Library of Congress.

Although none of the results discussed above are as of yet definitive, as research will continue through the coming months, they are presented here to give readers just a small taste of how science meets archaeology at the Library of Congress.

3 Comments

  1. Yvonne French
    September 6, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    Nice work!

  2. Marta Barber
    September 10, 2018 at 11:06 am

    We at the Institute of Maya Studies are very proud of the work being done on items donated by a longtime member of our group. Thank you.

  3. Jim Reed
    October 9, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    Thank you, John, for this most interesting article, and thank you, Arthur Dunkelman for forwarding it to the IMS. I knew Jim May back when I was president of the Institute of Maya Studies in the year 2000. I plan to create an editing version of this greenstone bead in the November IMS Explorer. John, you and the Library of Congress will get full credit, and I’ll provide a hyperlink to this article in our color web version of the newsletter. Jim Reed, editor of the IMS Explorer

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